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Film Clips: L'Enfant (The Child), Over the Hedge, more

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L'ENFANT (THE CHILD) The child is Jimmy, born just a few days ago. The child is also Sonia (Deborah Francois), Jimmy's 18-year-old mother and a woman who finds herself balanced between her own innocent exuberance and a growing sense of maternal instinct. But mainly, the child is Bruno (Jeremie Renier), Jimmy's 20-year-old father and an individual who learns the hard way that even the most immature among us will have to eventually accept responsibility and grapple with the consequences of our actions. Writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have cemented their reputations as Cannes' golden boys: Like their 1999 feature Rosetta, L'Enfant took the film festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or (in between, their 2002 effort Le Fils (The Son) also snagged a couple of major fest awards). Clearly, the siblings have their fans, yet for me, L'Enfant marks the first time that they seem interested in projecting more than just art-school indifference. Here, their detached style actually enhances the humanist nature of the tale, allowing us to feel both pity and revulsion for its protagonist. Bruno is a stunted adolescent whose "gang" of petty criminals consists of young boys not even old enough to shave. He spends money as fast as he earns (or steals) it, and his most shocking offense is to sell his own baby boy on the black market. It's this final act that begins the slow but steady journey to self-awareness (he's genuinely surprised at Sonia's shocked reaction and strives to get their son back), leaving us with an ending that doles out hope with guarded measure. ***

OVER THE HEDGE Based on a comic strip with which I'm thoroughly -- and, if it's anything like this movie, thankfully -- unfamiliar, Over the Hedge is yet another charmless animated feature made by profiteers whose historical reference point seems to begin and end with Shrek. In other words, don't look for what was once quaintly referred to as "Disney magic," that timeless, ethereal quality that used to be par for the course in toon flicks like Dumbo, 101 Dalmatians and Beauty and the Beast. With rare exception, today's cartoon characters aren't allowed to be romantic or introspective or lovably quixotic -- usually, they're too busy hyperventilating or passing gas or trying to find ways to screw over their fellow toons. This is more of the same, as an opportunistic raccoon (Bruce Willis) in hock to a grouchy grizzly (Nick Nolte) cons a group of forest denizens into helping him invade suburbia and steal the humans' junk food. There's a witty sequence in which the raccoon explains how the humans "live to eat" rather than "eat to live," and a Stanley Kowalski gag made me chuckle out loud. Otherwise, this DreamWorks production feels like a flat-footed attempt to rip off the Pixar template. In addition to Willis and Nolte, other all-stars include Garry Shandling, William Shatner and Avril Lavigne -- another break from the past, as the classic yarns didn't require marquee value to sell their stories. *1/2

Current Releases

AKEELAH AND THE BEE The pattern holds that every decade's midway stretch gives us an underdog worth supporting. In the 1970s, it was Rocky, in the 1980s, it was the Karate Kid, and in the 1990s, it was Babe. And now here comes 11-year-old Akeelah to carry the torch for the little people. Akeelah and the Bee, which in addition to its underdog roots also manages to come across as a mesh between the documentary Spellbound and Boyz N the Hood refitted with a happy ending, centers on Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), a south LA girl who, with the help of her mentor (Laurence Fishburne), works her way through the national spelling bee circuit. What sets the film apart is the manner in which it details how Akeelah's triumphs end up lifting the entire community: Her success is their success, and it's truly inspiring to watch neighbors from all walks of life throw their support behind her. There's no need to hide that lump in your throat or tear in your eye -- this movie earns its sentiment. ***

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL The latest from the Ghost World team of director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes starts out as a great movie that devolves into a pretty good one, as a stinging expose of campus life gives way to the more rigid narrative demands of a police procedural. The film follows college freshman Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) as he discovers that it's difficult to become a great artist when his teachers turn out to be hypocrites and his fellow students produce amateurish works that are instantly hailed as cutting-edge. Burdened with so much disillusionment, it's no wonder he's barely aware that a serial killer is trolling the campus grounds. This works best when it taps into the uncertainties of an adolescent existence suddenly liberated from the confines of home and family, or when it deconstructs the notion of what truly constitutes being a success in one's chosen field. It's at its weakest when it clumsily tries to tie together its points by employing a sensationalistic device that detracts from its astute observations. ***

FRIENDS WITH MONEY Movies like Friends With Money can often be termed "slice of life" films, but when they're as tasty as this one, a slice won't suffice: We end up longing for the whole pie. Set in LA, this rich seriocomic gem centers on the daily activities of four close female friends. Three of them indeed have money: screenwriter Christine (Catherine Keener), clothing designer Jane (Frances McDormand) and stay-at-home mom Franny (Joan Cusack). The friend without money is Olivia, whose lifestyle forces the others to reflect upon their own circumstances. I greatly enjoyed writer-director Nicole Holofcener's previous two pictures, 1996's Walking and Talking and 2002's Lovely & Amazing, but this might be her most accomplished work yet. Her greatest strength as a writer rests not in her dialogue (though it's top-grade) but rather in the manner in which she proves to be enormously generous of spirit with all her characters. ***1/2

JUST MY LUCK The fantasy-tinged plotline posits that Ashley Albright (Lindsay Lohan) is the luckiest woman in the world while the bumbling, stumbling Jake (Chris Paine) is her exact opposite, a guy so plagued by rotten luck that he's constantly being placed in compromising or injurious positions. But after these two strangers meet and kiss at a masquerade ball, Ashley suddenly finds herself the unluckiest woman in the world while Jake -- well, you can figure out the rest. That the key to Ashley's happiness (at least until the unconvincing third act denouement) is directly related to her wealth and status seems lost even to screenwriters I. Marlene King and Amy B. Harris, who apparently thought they were penning a romantic comedy when they were actually writing an ode to materialism. Worse, the pair can't even adhere to the guidelines they themselves established. When Ashley drops a contact lens into a cat's soiled litter box and then scoops it out and puts it in her eye without even rinsing it, this isn't an example of Ashley experiencing bad luck; this is an example of Ashley being a moron. *1/2

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III This fast-paced sequel is a huge improvement over its immediate predecessor and just barely manages to top the first film for sheer excitement. Instead of going for an established director like Brian De Palma (Mission I) and John Woo (Mission II), Paramount and producer-star Tom Cruise elected to take a chance on TV's J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), who pumps new life into the M:I template. "This Time, It's Personal" might as well have been the movie's tagline, as IMF (Impossible Missions Force) agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) finds himself trying to save his wife (Michelle Monaghan) and protégée (Keri Russell) from a murderous weapons dealer (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Mission: Impossible was established as a vanity franchise for Cruise, yet Hoffman's work (his character would have made a formidable Bond villain) marks this as the first time that the attention gets shifted away from the marquee attraction. ***

POSEIDON This remake of the 1972 disaster favorite The Poseidon Adventure -- in which several survivors try to make their way to the surface after an enormous wave flips their luxury cruise ship over -- isn't awful so much as it's impersonal: Foregoing the blood, sweat and characters that made the original come to life, this one's all about running cardboard people through the CGI paces. Electing to scrap the characters from Paul Gallico's book and Ronald Neame's earlier film, director Wolfgang Petersen and scripter Mark Protosevich instead serve up all-new players (brought to still-life by, among others, Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell and The Phantom of the Opera's Emmy Rossum). Petersen describes them as "original, contemporary characters," which I guess is some sort of doublespeak meaning one-dimensional dullards rendered uncomplicated for today's audiences. The sets and effects are also lazily realized, although Petersen, who knows about filming in cramped quarters (Das Boot, Air Force One), does get to display his directorial chops in the more claustrophobic segments, mustering what little suspense the film has to offer. Alas, it's not nearly enough to save this soggy endeavor. *1/2

RV One would have to travel deep into the 1990s to locate a comedic Robin Williams performance that was more than simply incessant shtick. Thankfully, RV finds Williams again merging his patented humor with a recognizably human character -- it's just a shame that the vehicle that carries this engaging performance doesn't offer a smoother ride. The tug-of-war between career and home is too omniscient to ever be ignored by filmmakers looking for an easy angle, and for a while, RV, in which a workaholic takes his family on vacation in the title monstrosity, looks as if it's going to be an effective take on the matter. Instead, the movie reveals an obsession with labored slapstick and potty humor, meaning we get tiresome scenes in which Williams' character falls down hills or finds himself covered head-to-toe in fecal matter. By the end, the crudity is so excessive, it makes National Lampoon's Vacation look as sophisticated as The Accidental Tourist by comparison. **

UNITED 93 It's hard to imagine a less sensationalized 9/11 film than writer-director Paul Greengrass' superb docudrama focusing on the morning when all hell broke loose in the US -- and specifically zooming in on the tragic yet inspiring saga of the one hijacked plane which did not reach its intended target. Perhaps it was imperative that an outsider tell this story, and that's what we get with Greengrass. A British filmmaker who achieved similar verisimilitude with 2002's Bloody Sunday (about the 1972 massacre of Irish civilians by English troops), Greengrass repeatedly refuses to take the bait of making a picture that can be tagged as exploitive, propagandistic or too political. Yet his restraint can only shelter us for so long: Ultimately, there's no defense against our own humanity. I imagine it's impossible to watch United 93 and not be brought to tears on several occasions. Whether such an outpouring of emotion will help the healing or tear open old wounds -- well, that's for each man and woman to decide for themselves. ****

OPENS FRIDAY, MAY 26:

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart.

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